Song of songs, p.62
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       Song of Songs, p.62

           Beverley Hughesdon
 

  I gulped down the weak tea gratefully – I was very thirsty by now. But I knew I would never dare to ‘speak to’ Ben. My hostess pursed her lips, ‘By way, lass – have you got blood in your water?’

  ‘No – no, I don’t think so.’

  ‘You’ll soon be all right then – looks as if we caught it in time. It can get right nasty once a lass is passing blood. Now on the way home you pop into Sammy Whittle’s and fetch some barley – cook a nice big jug of barley water and keep drinking it down – your waterworks is like these closets here’ – she waved an expansive arm – ‘it needs plenty of flushing to keep it sweet.’

  I stood up. ‘Thank you, Mrs Fairbarn – you’ve been very kind. But I must go now – my husband will be home soon and I have to cook his lunch. Thank you again.’

  She smiled. ‘You’re welcome, lass. I get a lot of brides in here, you know – with same trouble – you’re not th’only one, not by a long chalk. In fact,’ – her small eyes twinkled – ‘soon as I hear there’s a wedding, I has a little bet with meself: “What price that lass’ll be running in and out in a day or two, Edna me girl?” I’m not often wrong. When I heard Ben Holden were getting wed I knew I’d be seeing his missus in here – you can tell by look in their eye.’ Her fat elbow nudged my ribs. ‘Tell you truth, I were expecting you earlier!’ Her chins wobbled again as she laughed. I had given up blushing by now. She lumbered out of the doorway of her cubbyhole. ‘Now you be sure to give him a good ticking off soon as he walks in – he’ll argue a bit but he’ll behave hisself in end – he’s been spoilt, has Ben, but he’s not a bad lad at heart. You be sure and sort him out, now.’ I shook my head. ‘I’m grateful for your advice, Mrs Fairbarn, but I really couldn’t…’

  ‘Don’t be mardy, lass – if you lets ’em get away with owt now you’ll never be boss in your own home.’

  I dropped my eyes, then promised, ‘I’ll be sure to make the barley water – and now - I’ll just…’ I began to fumble in my purse.

  She swept forward, brandishing her brass key. ‘No lass – this one’s on me.’ As soon as she had the door open I ran into the small cubicle.

  When I called in at the corner shop for the barley, on an impulse I bought some flour and lard as well – I had noticed a recipe for a pie in Letty’s book – I would follow it and cook him a pleasant lunch. I felt much calmer in my mind now after listening to Edna Fairbarn – I was still very sore and uncomfortable but now I knew that there was nothing seriously wrong with me: I could cope with it. I smiled a little at her choice of words as I walked up Royds Street. It was no use blaming Ben for my state – he was a man, so of course he would use me as often as he wanted. And I was his wife, so I would just have to put up with it.

  The pastry would not stick together at first, but I managed to line the enamel pie dish eventually, and the gravy smelt good as I tipped the beef and onion mixture into it. I carefully draped the rest of my pastry over it and sat down in the rocker, waiting for Ben to come in – I wanted to watch the expression on his face when he sniffed the appetizing aroma.

  I heard his boots thundering through the front, then the kitchen door was slammed back and his presence seemed to fill the small room. ‘How could you, Helena, how could you?’ He was bellowing and his face was contorted with rage. ‘Complaining about me – tittle-tattling the secrets of our marriage bed – to Edna Fairbarn of all people.’ His voice seemed to bounce against the walls and I shrank back into my chair. ‘Edna Fairbarn, who’s got a tongue as long as me arm! I were walking up street, after a hard shift’s work to earn money to keep you’ – he glared at me – ‘and Edna Fairbarn comes creeping out, like a fat white slug from under her lettuce leaf, and says, as loud as you like: “You want to lay off your little missus, Ben Holden – you’re making her ill keep jumping on her all night like that.” Christ, the whole street could hear her.’ His face was scarlet with fury.

  In desperation I pointed to the stove. ‘I’ve made your lunch, Ben.’

  ‘I don’t want no bloody lunch!’ He exploded again: ‘You can throw it in back of fire for all I care.’ He took a deep angry breath and came a step nearer – I flinched away from him; then suddenly he swung round and headed for the door. As he put his hand on the latch he threw over his shoulder. ‘I’m sick of bloody women – I’m going to pub.’

  The slamming of the front door brought the weak tears of relief to my eyes. But then I saw his belt, hanging behind the kitchen door – and remembered how he had threatened me in the dog cart at Hatton. I had not gone with another man, but he had been wild with rage – if he was still angry when he came back, what might he do? And I remembered the dozen dead Germans and felt sick with fear.

  The pie was obviously burning; but there seemed no point in rescuing it now. I crouched in the chair with the tears trickling down my face, too frightened to move.

  Then I heard the front door slam again – he had come back – he had been gone only ten minutes, and already he was back – I was very scared. As I heard him push open the door I closed my eyes and cowered into my chair with my hands raised to ward off the blows.

  ‘Oh God – Helena, Helena – I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ I crouched on in my chair; I heard him approaching but I still could not look at him. ‘Helena, please.’ His voice was muffled, and slowly I opened my eyes, and saw him kneeling beside my chair with his head in his hands, his shoulders shaking. At last I reached out to him, uncertainly, and touched his wrist; at once he caught hold of my hand and pressed it against his cheek – it was damp, and with a shock I realized that he was crying. He raised a tormented face to mine. ‘Helena, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I never touched me pint – just as I were picking it up I thought: she’d never have done that, and even if she did, well, it were my fault for pestering her too much. I knew this morning you didn’t want it, but I couldn’t help meself, lying there beside you – but I won’t do it again, I promise. From now on I won’t lay a finger on you unless you’re willing.’

  I explained, hesitantly, ‘I didn’t tell her, Ben – she guessed, because I had to keep going in there.’

  He asked urgently, ‘Look, lass – is there blood in it?’ His face was anxious.

  I felt a spurt of anger against the fat woman. ‘No, Ben – and she knew that, she’d already asked me – she shouldn’t have told you that.’

  He sighed. ‘She didn’t say it were so, exactly – I think she were trying to frighten me. But at first I were so angry – then when I came back and saw you with your hands up like that, as if you were expecting me to hit you…’ The hand holding mine tightened.

  I felt so tired, ‘It’s all right, Ben – I understand.’

  He stood up very slowly, still holding my hand. ‘I’ve got a bit of a temper, and I fly off the handle sometimes – but I’d never hurt you, lass, never.’ Then he sniffed the air. ‘And you made a nice dinner for me too when you weren’t feeling so good…’

  I climbed stiffly out of my chair. ‘I’m not ill, Ben – it’s just that I need to…’ I pulled away my hand and edged towards the scullery door – and then ran out into the yard.

  When I got back he was chipping the burnt bits off my pie. ‘It’ll be all right lass, it weren’t too far gone. You sit down and I’ll see to the veg.’

  He praised my pie extravagantly, though the gravy had almost dried up. I had to leave the table twice during the meal to visit the closet – I had drunk warm water and it was a little less painful, but the angry scene with Ben seemed to have lessened my control and I was terrified of wetting my drawers whenever I stood up. His eyes watched me anxiously each time I came in from the back and I had difficulty keeping back the tears of weakness. As soon as I had finished my cup of tea he ordered, ‘You go upstairs and have a nice rest on your own – I won’t disturb you.’ Wearily I headed for the backyard again.

  As I was pulling myself upstairs he came behind me and called, ‘Another thing – you’ve got to start using chamber in bedroom – you can’t keep running up and do
wn stairs the way you are now.’ I knew he was right, but I could not reply.

  I did sleep at last, I was so tired. On awakening I crept down the stairs and peered into the kitchen – it was empty so I hurried back to fetch the chamber and empty it; there was no sign of blood in it. When I came down again he was stretching in the parlour doorway. ‘I’ve had a bit of a nap meself, seeing as I were on so early.’ He followed me into the kitchen and asked, diffidently, ‘How are you, lass?’

  I whispered, ‘Better,’ and set off for the closet again. Walking back down the yard I saw his dark shape behind the net curtains in the kitchen window, watching me. But he was sitting down with the paper by the time I had washed my hands. I stood, uncertain, by the table. ‘Lass’ – he kept his eyes on the newspaper – ‘I just noticed – you’re walking a bit – difficult.’ He raised his head and looked at me. ‘Did I hurt you, as well?’

  ‘I – I –’ I did not know how to reply, but at last managed to get out, ‘I’m just a bit sore, Ben.’

  ‘So I did.’ His voice was flat.

  ‘Only last night – and –’ I saw from his face I had made it worse.

  He said softly, ‘Christ – and I took you four times last night alone. You should have told me, Helena.’

  I whispered, ‘You’re my husband, Ben.’

  ‘That don’t give me right to behave like an animal.’ Then he went on, his voice awkward, ‘I’m wondering now if I’m, well, too big for you down there. When I’m… that is… you’re so tight. All the women I been with before, they never had trouble like you’re ’aving – but they were wider round th’ips than you are, so happen they were built different inside, as well.’

  He sat waiting for me to answer. At last I muttered, ‘I – remember, I’m not – not very used to being with a man yet.’ I finished in a rush.

  I heard his sigh of relief. ‘Aye, that’s true. Me other women, they weren’t whores – I kept meself clean like – but, well, they’d done it regular – so I suppose that’s why they were more accommodating.’

  He picked up his paper and I dragged my useless, unaccommodating body up the stairs and began to put on the clean sheets. I cried while making the bed up, then I stopped – what was the point? His gold band tightened round my finger: ‘for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health…’

  He went for some cheese while I cut the bread and butter and made the tea. Afterwards I did the washing up while he went up to the plot, then we both sat in the front parlour in silence. He read steadily and I listlessly turned over the pages of Letty’s book.

  He sent me up to bed early and it was longer than usual before he followed me. I was still awake when his heavy body climbed in beside me – but he kept well over on his side. I lay thinking of those generous-hipped women who were ‘happen built different inside’ and felt miserably guilty. ‘I’m sorry, Ben.’

  He sighed. ‘Don’t fret, lass – I’ve seen to meself already downstairs. But if I cuddle up to you like, then I’ll come up again, so it’s best I keep to me own side. Goodnight, Helena.’

  ‘Goodnight, Ben.’ I knew I would not sleep until I had tried to satisfy my bladder again so I began to edge my way out. When I got to the door he suddenly called out, ‘Where are you going, lass?’

  ‘Just to the closet.’

  He moved very quickly; before I had stepped off the landing my arm was held tight. ‘Look, my lass, you mun use chamber.’

  ‘I can’t Ben – not with you here.’

  He said heavily, ‘Lass, I’m your husband – if I hadn’t been behaving like one you wouldn’t be in this state now.’

  I could not argue with his logic, but I could not use the chamber in his presence either. We stood there until I began to shift uneasily from foot to foot – then he let me break away.

  When I came back he had the gas lit. ‘Helena, I’ve put the chamber in the other room – if you won’t use it in here than you mun do it in there – do you understand me?’ I nodded. ‘Lass, I don’t want no insubordination, I want a promise.’

  ‘I promise.’

  ‘Good – now mebbe we can both get some sleep – I’ve got to be up afore three.’

  But while I was sleeping I must have turned towards him, for I woke to feel his strong hands pushing me away. I was confused. ‘Ben?’

  ‘Christ, lass – ’aven’t you got more sense than to wrap yourself round me like that? It were difficult enough first few days we were wed – but at least I’d not got th’abit o’ you – now when I’ve been used to having me fill of you…’

  He was panting heavily. I crouched away from him, then whispered, ‘Perhaps, just once…’

  He reared up in the bed. ‘It wouldn’t be bloody once, you stupid lass!’ Then he subsided a little. ‘Besides, how could I do it, knowing every push were hurting you? I’m not so hard, Helena – I’d hate meself afterwards.’ He sighed. ‘I’ll have to go downstairs again and sort meself out.’

  I lay on my own, consumed with guilt. He came back quite quickly, and got back into bed; he was calmer now. ‘I’m sorry for shouting at you, lass – only a woman don’t understand how it is for a man.’ He put out his hand and squeezed mine briefly. ‘Go to sleep now, and stop fretting.’

  I dozed fitfully – I was frightened of touching his body and arousing him again, and he was restless too. We were both already awake when the knocker-up came banging on the door. Ben shouted ‘A’reet’ through the window, then groaned. ‘At least he’s in good time this morning – I had a few sharp words to say to young Tommy Bradshaw yesterday, catching me on th’op like that without even time for a goodbye kiss. Come here, lass, let’s have a quick cuddle afore I leave you.’ As he pulled me towards him I slipped my arms round his neck and he stroked my back and nuzzled my cheek. Then he raised his face to mine and whispered, ‘Let’s have a proper kiss, Helena – that’ll not harm you.’ So I opened my mouth to his and his tongue came in and licked mine – and he pulled me closer to him and suddenly he was groaning and panting and pushing his hard swollen maleness against my belly. I stiffened and he pulled away and threw himself back and jumped off the bed. ‘Bloody hell! That were a mistake – I’d best wave from door in future.’ He tugged on his clothes and flung himself out. ‘Sithee, lass.’

  As I heard his boots clattering down the street, I lay trembling in the bed where he had left me: I had been so naïvely proud of the power I had to arouse him, but now that I was no longer able to satisfy his needs I was frightened by the very strength of them. My mind began to picture him taking those other women with their full, womanly bodies who ‘never had no trouble’ – and I began to cry. Then I remembered that at least I was free of him for his eight-hour shift, so I used the chamber again, went back to bed and fell gratefully asleep in its emptiness.

  I got up with the mill hooters and dragged myself through my housework, but the small house oppressed me today – it was no longer a doll’s house to be played in – its demands weighed me down. And although he was out at work there were signs of him everywhere: his best boots under the draining board in the scullery; his weekday jacket hanging behind the kitchen door; his paper thrown carelessly down beside his armchair in the parlour. And I had to cope with the wearisome routine of shopping and cooking for him.

  I was nervous of going down to the town, but by concentrating hard on what I had to do I succeeded in ignoring the demands of my bladder – and realized with relief that they were already becoming less urgent. Edna Fairbarn had been right – I had not caught a chill at all – my symptoms had been entirely due to Ben’s over-use of me.

  On my return I opened Letty’s book and began to follow the instructions for making a stew – at least this was one of a wife’s duties which I could try to carry out. I had just finished peeling the potatoes, ready for when he came in, when there was a knock at the door: it was a boy in an over-large cap. He raised it politely and asked, ‘Are you Ben Holden’s missus?’

  ‘Yes, yes I am.’


  ‘Then ’e give me tuppence to tell you’e’d be late ’ome today.’ He skidded off down the street.

  The stew was almost cooked – I lifted the saucepan and peered in, wondering how late Ben would be – and why was he late? He must have completed his eight-hour shift by now. I turned off the gas and stood hesitating, then found my polishing rags and went through to the parlour – the sideboard and piano were looking rather dull and I wanted to occupy my hands while I waited; I wondered again where he had gone. When the sideboard was shining I moved rather reluctantly across the room – handling the piano made my throat tighten. My voice had been my constant companion all my life – and now it had deserted me; it had grown up with me, just as my brothers had done… I forced my mind to blank out those memories that lurked always in the shadows – threatening to destroy me. My hands worked mechanically, until only the top remained to be done. I began to pick up my photos: Guy and Pansy at their wedding – and I heard again Pansy’s small sad voice as she told me: ‘He may not come in later – he often doesn’t come back at all,’ just as my husband had not come back. The thought lingered in my mind as I picked up the photo of my sisters – with Conan. I remembered my cousin’s voice as he had exclaimed: ‘Christ, Hellie, over the years you’ve cost me a fortune in whores!’ My cousin whom I had also aroused – who had controlled himself with me – and had gone to obtain relief with other women. Ben had had to share a bed with me the whole night through, and my female presence had excited him past bearing – but he had controlled himself – so where was he now? My hand was trembling as I picked up Mother and Papa and Maud – so elegant in their silver frame – Papa was devoted to Maud: but his affection for her had not stopped him in Munich. Whereas Ben Holden, who had felt obliged to marry me, would use me when I was available – but I had not been available to him last night, and he had needed a woman this morning.

 

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